The reboot of DC comics was hot when the New 52 came out, and led to big changes in the industry. One included the time ever the regular Batman title was drawn by a… GHAST… woman. Her name is Becky Cloonan, and I was blessed with interviewing her for This is Infamous during this period. So let’s take another jump back in time for today’s blog post. I love her art. I love her writing. Her words to me in this interview helped motivate me to become an author of fiction.
Becky Cloonan burst onto the comic book scene with her self-published mini-comics in 2002. Since then she has gone on to work for varying publishers, from DC and VERTIGO to TOKYOPOP and DARK HORSE as well as continuing her personal projects. She is diverse, spreading her distinct modern style through varying mediums, and many music fans have been exposed to her art from her collaborations with bands such as MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE. Yet, despite her success, ultimately, this multiple Eisner-Award nominated and winning creator is currently best known as being the first woman to draw the main BATMAN title with it’s 12th issue after the NEW 52 reboot. Recently I was blessed with an opportunity to speak with Becky about BATMAN as well as, among other things, the current role of women in the comic-book industry. She is an energetic woman, both charming and intelligent, whose many tattoos mark her as a rock-n-roll rebel with a cause; albeit one with a positive message that she reinforces through her art.
BECKY CLOONAN: Hi.
TC: Let’s breach the wall right off the bat, no pun intended, with the infamous BATMAN #12, your current interview equivalent of a hit song.
BECKY: Yeah, that’s going on my tombstone right there.
TC: What were your feelings at the time when you were given the opportunity to be involved with BATMAN?
BECKY: It was crazy, because I had just met Scott Snyder, we were in London at KA-POW and we were at the bar afterwords, and he’s like, “I’d like to work with you,” and I was like, “I’d like to work with you, maybe one day, yadda yadda yadda.” Then like a week later, like, no, maybe a few days later, not even, I get an email and he’s like, “Hey, so, do you want to draw an issue of BATMAN? We need a fill-in artist for issue 12.” And I was like, “I’d love to but I’m moving this month and I’ve got Heroes-Con coming up and I feel like it’s going to be too much, I don’t want to rush BATMAN.” And my boyfriend, Andy, at the time was like “You have to draw Batman, there’s no way you can’t.” So he just basically sat me down, because I was like, “I don’t think I can do it,” and he’s like, “Are you crazy? Are you insane?” So I was like, “OK, Fine, I’ll do it. But like all the overnights I’m going to be really cranky and you’re going to just have to deal with that.” So I ended up doing it and I did the issue and I was really happy with it and it as so different from what, from reading his (Scott Snyder) and Greg’s (Pak) Batman, and it was so different from the rest of it, it was like he had written it for me.
TC: You closed the COURT OF OWLS thing.
BECKY: The Owls, yeah, that was the end of that run, and with Harper Roe; which is great, because I got a lot of liberties with her, I was like, “what if she has a sweet tooth?” So I just made her stuffing her face with cookies in every panel, it was cute, giving her crappy teenager hair that I had when I was a crappy teenager.
TC: Might we see more BATMAN entries from you; is there a particular BATMAN story that you might want to tell?
BECKY: I’m going to just say “possibly?” You may hear about that very soon, like maybe in June? There might be something? Maybe? I can’t say anything about it, but I am talking with Mark Doyle in the BAT-Office about stuff. So we’ll see.
TC: How does a person become accustomed to the immortality of being a trivia question as a result of being the first woman to draw BATMAN?
BECKY: Yeah, I keep joking that that’s going to be on my tombstone. Luckily I didn’t know that was the case when I drew the issue, there was no pressure. It was just like, “Hey, do you want to draw BATMAN?” and I was like, “Sure, why not!” And I don’t think it was even a case of we need a woman to draw Batman, nobody knew. I think someone online had just looked it up and was like, “I think you’re the first woman to draw BATMAN?” And then a few people started digging through their back-issues, whatever, maybe Wikipedia entries, I don’t know. It just happened, and after that I was kind of really surprised, and it’s almost one of those things that’s hard to even believe that when people say “You’re the first woman to draw Batman.” I guess that’s true, but I don’t feel like it. I mean I feel like I just drew an issue of BATMAN. It’s kind of bizarre and if anybody had to be the first, I’m glad it was me and I’m glad it was that issue. I’m very proud of that.
TC: And you should be, but it hides an underlying problem in comic books, which is sexism, and I wish it was a simple black and white issue that could be easily resolved, but it isn’t, as it exists in all levels of the industry from the creation process right down to the people that buy the final product. There is a rush to judgment by fans and their incredibly harsh criticism on females speaking on different matters regarding comics, as if there is no place for you in the conversation, it’s an “Old Boys Club” mentality. How do you feel this stigmatism could be alleviated, as it is a primary force that keeps some women away from comics?
BECKY: That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?
TC: Yeah, I’ve got to ask the hard ones.
BECKY: I can only speak from my experiences and from my perspective. I was talking to Heidi McDonald (“The Beat”) about this, and she’s such a proponent for Women’s Rights and women in comics, and readers and the way women are treated and I really admire what she does and how much she vocalizes. I just can’t do that, I don’t have the energy to get in the fight like that. To think about having to devote that much time on-line, to jump into the fray that way? I feel like I’m doing a different service. That’s really important what she does, but I feel like my focus is staying positive and I want to inspire and encourage as many girls as I can to read comics and to draw comics. I’ve felt like my gender was secondary anyway, for a long time I barely felt like a girl. I didn’t even start wearing make-up until I was 27, and I shaved my head and all this stuff, I dressed like a boy for a very long time. I think some of that is just because I drew comics for so long and I hung out with so many guys and you just feel like one of the guys. I never felt like anyone ever treated me any differently because I’m a girl, which is great. I think I try to bring that to my career as well and the way that I always just try to stay positive and I don’t like to jump into things, but I like to encourage and help people that way. Part of it is I don’t have the mental capacity to get my hands dirty and jump into something. It’s not like I don’t have my own bad experiences. They haven’t been horrible, thank God, and they’ve been stuff that’s relatively easy to handle. I haven’t had any horror stories, really, and everyone’s been professional and encouraging and very supportive of my career.
TC: It is kind of weird how it is with a “sex sells mentality” with a lot of female characters in comics.
BECKY: It’s not just female characters in comics! But look at the music industry, the TV industry, advertising. You go back to this through the dawn of time.
TC: You can either embrace it or get upset about it or try to change it.
BECKY: Well, that’s the thing. You have to recognize it and just because you’re critical of something you have to understand, it’s important to be able to love something with all your heart but you have to be able to criticize it as well. And that’s where people, well, if I say I loved TRUE DETECTIVE but there wasn’t any good female characters in it, they all stunk. And then people take that as a criticism of the show. No, no, no. I really enjoyed it, but here’s what I think was wrong with it. It’s important to be able to pick that apart and recognize what you didn’t like about it. And it doesn’t negate the fact that it was good, it was a brilliant piece of television on so many levels. You can say that about movies or video games or anything to, so I think it’s a matter of being able to voice your opinion and not have people make these knee-jerk reactions and think there’s some kind of ominous conspiracy, which is really weird to me, when you think about it.
TC: Do you think the market is viable enough to allow for more female lead characters?
BECKY: Oh yeah, for sure, definitely. And I think you’re going to see that change really quickly. Look at the change that has happened from 10 years ago to now. I started, my fist book was published in 2001, 2002? That’s like, 13 years ago? And the amount that the industry has changed. Back then you could count the number of women working in comics on like two hands. And now you go to comic conventions and it’s half, if not more, women attending and exhibiting. And these are power houses, they’re top names, top sellers, NY TIMES Bestsellers. I think the Manga boom that happened, this is really interesting because TOKYOPOP, what they did do was they broke into book stores, and you saw them get into BORDERS and BARNES & NOBLE and because of that you saw a lot more girls start reading Manga. And I started teaching at SVA, the school I went to, I actually dropped out but I started teaching there and half of my class is girls and they all were getting into comics at that time, like POKEMON was the thing that they were reading when they were growing up and that happened to late for me to get interested in because I was too old to really get into it. I think that just shows here you have, when I was going to school you had three female cartoonists in my grade and now it’s like half girls.
TC: I remember when it was just Wendy Pini.
BECKY: Right, exactly, and thank God for her, right? Because when I was growing up she was one of the creators that I really looked up to. I want to draw comics, she draws comics. I CAN DO THIS! It’s like having that role-model, someone like you, and I think that’s my role, to be like that and encourage more girls to read comics and create comics that I think girls would be interested in. And it’s not to say that guys can’t do that, because there are tons of guys that write. Look at SAGA that Brian K. Vaughn is writing, he writes comics that women just love. It’s across the board you’re seeing that. Matt Fraction and HAWKEYE, there’s some amazing stuff.
TC: Yeah, Fraction’s amazing.
BECKY: He’s so good. SEX CRIMINALS is one of my favorite books right now.
TC: My first exposure to you is QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST, and quite honestly it’s one of my favorite Conan stories as I’m a die-hard Robert E Howard fan.
BECKY: Yeah, mine, too.
TC: I love it primarily because of Belit being such a strong character and the dynamics between her and Conan.
BECKY: And it was such a short story, too.
TC: And it’s got great themes in it of love and death.
BECKY: You could argue that Belit is Conan’s only and first love, because he can’t really love anyone after that. It’s an incredible story.
TC: One thing I like is the art is so different than the old Buscema art in the old Marvel adaptations, yet there is a throwback here to Barry Windsor Smith, too, I see.
BECKY: Yeah! I love Barry Windsor-Smith, I love the John Buscema work, I mean they’re two of my favorites. I love those old CONAN books. If there’s one thing to be said, you can’t just imitate that. When you’re adapting something that’s already been done, it’s like doing a cover song, you do it the same way as the original in kind of an homage to that, or you do something completely new. And I was like, Conan was younger in the story so I was going for more of a BRAVEHEART, William Wallace kind of lean, like Bruce Lee almost. He’s still strong, but he’s not as big, he’s younger. And Belit is such a strong character, and she usually runs around topless in the story, and they’re like you can’t really do that.
TC: I liked what you did with it, it was very tasteful.
BECKY: Yeah, I tried to keep it, yeah, very tasteful but still have that sensuality and still have that empowering. Because she runs around topless, I think that was a hard line to walk because she could easily fall into the cheesecake side of everything. This girl that is basically naked, running around. But I think trying to approach her just like a demoness, kind of frightening, like she’s so scary that she’s not sexy anymore. She’s amazing.
TC: She’s one of my first literary loves.
BECKY: I’m really glad you liked it because I was really proud of the work that I brought to it.
TC: And it shows in the work.
BECKY: Thank you.
TC: Speaking of works of yours that are fantastic, quite a bit of your material has been nominated for Eisner awards over the years. Out of those that were nominated, which do you have the most personal adoration for?
BECKY: I would have to say with last year’s THE MIRE, was nominated, and that one won for best single issue.
TC: That was the sequel to WOLVES, right?
BECKY: Yeah, well a sequel in a spiritual sense. And DEMETER this year is nominated in the same category. And those are both personal stories. I get to write and draw, and I don’t get to write very often, so to have those being nominated for Eisners and win even, was like, they’re self-published, so it’s obviously like a work of love for me.
TC: You’ve been a force in comics going on a decade now. Getting into the big comic publishers is difficult, it’s akin to playing in a pro sport like basketball that has a finite amount of space for talent. You started out doing this on your own and took the independent path. Having experienced the ups and downs of the industry over your career, what advice would you offer to someone whose dream is to draw comics. How do you suggest they get their foot in the door?
BECKY: Getting your foot in the door is a hard thing, because there are so many different sides to this industry, right; when we’re saying yes it is growing, and it’s like a diamond and it has so many different sides to it. You have like web-comics, you have graphic novels, you’ve got the mainstream superhero books, you’ve got independent books like IMAGE. There are so many different sides to it, when you’re starting out, don’t limit yourself to “I have to work for DC or I have to this.” You can self-publish and there is different ways of doing it. COMIXOLOGY has their submit program, and you can get your work on KINDLE fairly easily, digital readers or just putting it up online, like starting a Tumblr and having a weekly web-comic or going another route. So many of my books are just labors of love, too, you do it in your spare time. Really just sit down and focus and get the work done. I think that’s where a lot of people fall short and it’s intimidating and it’s a lot of work. You start it and then you get over-whelmed and it’s so easy to give up. You see the project through to the end, and even if nobody has any response, you can’t get discouraged, you just start on the next book and just believe in the work. You’re a storyteller, so tell stories and really love that. And I think that when you realize that’s what you’re doing, it’s a form of communication. I’m communicating my story with you, you’re the reader. So you have to think about that. You can love the medium of comics, but to really tell a story is something very special. Understand, there’s more facets (to the industry) than just drawing or writing comics, too. There’s editorial, what you’re doing is journalism and we’re sitting in Cloud City Comics in Syracuse and Jeff Watkins runs the store and you know I’ve been at his conventions when he ran conventions, so there’s so many different things you can do to really promote comics and to love them. Jeff runs a great store and you’ve got such a great community up here, and that’s just a retail aspect of it. There are so many different ways to get involved in comics rather than write and draw. So if you’re having trouble writing and drawing, you have to think, “Are you going to keep doing this, or is there another way to get involved?” I think that’s where the industry needs as much love as it can get, and we’re growing, so between printing, and distribution and everything, there’s so many different places to get involved. And it’s exciting because it’s changing so much.
TC: Last question. Currently, you are drawing THE TRUE LIVES OF THE FABULOUS KILLJOYS, it’s your bread & butter project right now. What other projects are on the horizon that you can talk about or might want to spoil?
BECKY: KILLJOY the trade came out (last) Wednesday (5 years ago!), so it was only a six issues of mini-series. I’m working on a graphic novel for FIRST SECOND and that’s a longer project. I’m also writing two stories, I’m writing two other books but I can’t talk about those yet because they haven’t been announced. They should be announced pretty soon. I self-published a graphic novel collection of my short stories.
TC: I loved your DRACULA. It was beautiful.
BECKY: Thank you. That was a lot of fun. I’d like to do more stuff like that. Illustration is not easy, it’s tough.
TC: Might we see a FRANKENSTEIN on the horizon?
BECKY: Keep your fingers crossed, who knows what the future holds.
TC: Becky, Thank you.
BECKY: You’re welcome.